Lights, Camera, Plywood and Wallpaper

Even illusory worlds need designers, and for the film and television industry, creating those worlds fall to the artistry and skill of Production Designers.

Matt Berry plays as Laszlo in “Hybrid Creatures,” season 5, episode 7 of What We Do In The Shadows (Russ Martin/FX).

Even illusory worlds need designers, and for the film and television industry, creating those worlds fall to the artistry and skill of Production Designers, who weave together imagination and technique, seamlessly blending illusion with reality. With disciplined precision and fiscal mindfulness, they elevate the script and bring it to life, transforming ideas into captivating imagery and purpose into tangible reality.

Shayne Fox is a Toronto-based production designer and set decorator who for over three decades has created television programming and feature films for FX Network, NBC, Netflix, Warner Brothers, Sony, MGM and many others. She has received two prime time Emmy nominations as well as four Art Directors Guild nominations, two wins, and also somehow found time to design and launch a hardware line.

I was able to pull Shayne away from the set of What We Do in The Shadows as it wrapped shooting its sixth and final season in Toronto to understand her profession more fully and just how much it mirrors the built environment design professions we are familiar with.

For people who don’t know anything about the world of film and television production, please explain what the role of a Production Designer (PD) is, and where a PD fits in the hierarchy of a production.

Production Designers are the people who oversee the look of the show and build a world for our characters. Everything from the interior design and the choices of wallpaper and materials to things that fall into structural engineering. We are there to service the script and create the most interesting sets in the amount of time and budgets that we have It’s about servicing the story, the vision of the show in general and understanding where our characters are supposed to be. Sometimes it’s as simple as an office space, or sometimes there’s major stunts that need to be accounted for.

When I talk to architects and designers about projects they’re working on, one of the first things that comes out is the relationship with the client and the budget. When you start on a production, do you get involved early on with budget? Can you ever fight for more money for the art department?

Even when we’re being considered for projects, one of my first questions will be “What’s the overall budget of this project?” Because it gives me an indication of what kind of work is involved. Sometimes, when we dive into a script, I’ll read something and say “Oh, my gosh, this is hugely ambitious. I’m not sure we can afford this.” Then we take it to the showrunners and [set out] priorities. And we’re constantly updating budgets and projections so that there are no surprises to accountants and production managers who must reconcile it all. We’re working with our vendors to always keep things realistic and get estimates from them before we commit to custom wallpaper or to whatever it is that we need. Our show is very stunt heavy, so we often must build things just for the stunt team to practice with. It’ll never make it to camera, but it’s an important step in the process that could be quite costly sometimes, depending on the parameters of what we’re trying to do.

“What We Do In The Shadows” — “The Grand Opening” — Season 4, Episode 3 — Pictured: Kayvan Novak as Nandor, Harvey Guillén as Guillermo, Anoop Desai as Djinn. (credit: Russ Martin / FX)

The concept behind What We Do in The Shadows is a mockumentary crew follows around a group of vampires, capturing their misadventures. There’s a cinéma verité feel where the vampires acknowledge the camera is there, as opposed to most other shows were there’s a lot of effort put into hiding the camera. That said, in the world you create what’s more important: the actor or the camera?

My first [instinct is] to say the camera, because I’m always wondering and worried about what the camera is gonna see. It’s a visual medium and we want the camera to capture amazingness so I’m always hyper-aware of the camera’s location, the type of camera, the camera angle and even the camera height. We don’t do a lot of locked-off wide shots or we don’t come in for tight close ups. It’s all very Steadicam style at eye level, and I cater to that. But having said that, because we’re mockumentary style and because I never know where they’re going to point the camera, that’s when the actor comes in, because the actor is given a real space that’s usable all around. We love to hand off sets that feel real, so the actors feel like it gives them a better playground to do their best work.

What do you think are the key attributes then that make for a good production designer.

Being a creative person is key, because being a creative person is going to put you in a better position to think on your feet, be adaptable but understand materials, time periods, architecture, and so on. If you’re dialed into design, you’re going to understand what it takes to build a world or augment an already built world. If you’re trying to suggest what a character is like, and all you have is a couple shots in their bedroom, how do you style it? What do you put in there? What is it that’s important to them? A good designer is someone who’s also open minded and collaborative. I’ve seen designers who try and push their own agenda without listening to the showrunner, without really understanding the story arc. You sometimes have to put your own tastes and your own wishes for a character or story aside, and you have to embrace what’s in front of you, and what is being asked to view.

What tools do you use to help you do your job? From the early pre-production visualization stages (i.e. storyboarding) all the way through to building sets?

When I’m putting my brain towards a new set build, what I’ll do is think about it for a while, about what it is that I want to achieve and how I want it to look. Then I’ll create a board with a program called Canva, a presentation board of materials and influences and references. Basically a mood board of colours, finishes, palette of light and dark, all these materials that I want to use. Then I use a program called ArcSite for drawing floor plans and I’ll draw a layout, and then I’ll go to my set designers and my art directors to help me further expand and further draw that up. I know set designers use a combo of different programs: they use Rhino, SketchUp, Escape, Blender. Depending on how in-depth we need to get sometimes we’ll do hyper-realistic renders of the space so we can look at it and almost walk through it as if the camera is there. And sometimes we’ll bring in the DP and the director and we’ll talk about what type of lenses they’re going to use and throw those lenses into Rhino or Blender so we can see our depth of field and see if there’s a window in a hall, how much of the view of the hall do we get? Do we want to make the hole longer, wider, taller? Once we have a good model and a good layout that feels right for the director and the DP, we’ll bring in our set decorating team and we’ll talk about where and how we want to dress it with furniture, sconces, flooring, etcetera. We’ll also bring in our grips and rigging gaffers to talk about the ceiling; do we need a truss or a grid; how are we going to hang lights? Everything we need to make this look and feel good on camera.

“What We Do In The Shadows” — ‘The Night Market” — Season 4, Episode 4 — Pictured: Kayvan Novak as Nandor. (credit: Russ Martin / FX)

You basically just described the exact process of every architect and interior designer I’ve ever spoken to. From ideation to completion, your process mirrors most building professionals. So then, what do you think are the differences between building for film sets versus building for real people?

(Laughs) Our toilets are not plumbed. Unless there’s a scripted beat where someone’s washing dishes and they need water coming under the faucet, there’s no plumbing. Everything we do is temporary. It’s built for the camera. Sometimes we exaggerate the depth of something because on camera it might get squished, so we build a bedroom extra big. We don’t build for permanence: it might be shot one day and torn down the next day.

That’s the key difference: temporality. Basically, you’re doing interior design just for a camera, but you are telling a story. And interior designers tell me that all the time, that “we’re telling a story about how people will interact with the space.” You’re telling a story, in this case an actual story, and you’re very concerned about how the audience will react to how that story is being told through images and everything being built into the images, which includes the world in which it is being shot. You’re an interior designer, you’re just doing it slightly differently.

I feel like if I were an actual real interior designer, I would be way more versed in code and real-world realities and parameters, because we fudge things all the time.

True. And in the A&D profession, a huge issue they must deal with every day are mandates for sustainability such as certification programs like LEED, which impact everything from materials to energy use to end-of-life Cradle to Cradle sensibilities. Does the film industry have any certification programs or mandates to achieve certain levels of material reduction or recyclability afterwards?

The short answer is no, we don’t have anything official. Everything we do is so fast and furious, and it would have to be an extra department or an extra step or an extra process to be more environmentally mindful. It’s awful. There’s a lot of waste in the film industry. Sometimes things get trashed because it’s proprietary, like the way you shred documents, [and studios] don’t want things out there to the public until they’re ready to be shown. But having said that, we do reuse a lot of things internally, like if we’re just doing a very simple set and we have the walls painted blue, maybe we can use them the next week in a different configuration, and we’ll paint them green. And sometimes we’re able to sell just raw materials to another production when we’re done or pass them off. We do reuse things as much as we can, but there’s no certifications or governing body or anybody checking in on us if we’re meeting certain codes of environmental conduct.

“What We Do In The Shadows” — “A Weekend at Morrigan Manor” — Season 5, Episode 9 — Pictured (L-R): Mark Proksch as Colin Robinson, Harvey Guillén as Guillermo, Kristen Schaal as The Guide, Natasia Demetriou as Nadja, Matt Berry as Laszlo. (credit: Russ Martin / FX)

Despite how incredibly hectic your schedule is normally — made even worse now that What We Do in The Shadows is wrapping up — you also find time to design and build your own hardware line, called Shayne Fox Hardware. Can you tell me about that?

I’ve been working in industry for a long time and there were occasionally big chunks of time, be it due to industry strikes or calamities in the world, of a couple of months or a few months between contracts where I wasn’t working. And as a creative person and as a person who has bills to pay, sometimes that would be traumatic. So, I decided I need to build something that’s mine, I need to have something that I can control as a creative outlet and that could be a revenue source. So I came up with my own line of cast bronze hardware handles and knobs for interiors. It started as a labour of love and a little side hustle, something that I did between gigs. But it’s grown and grown and it’s now way more than a side hustle. It’s its own front and centre hustle that I manage while I’m working in production. I supply hardware all over the world, with retailers in Australia, a couple in Europe and in the U.S. and all over Canada. I wholesale but I also sell direct to interior designers and off our website.

It’s all made in Toronto. When supply chains were having issues during COVID, much to my surprise I was extremely busy because everyone was renovating their houses, and I could supply people because my foundry is like 30 kilometers from my house. Everything is made from cast bronze the old-fashioned way, pouring molten bronze into a sand cast mold impression, and then it goes through a finishing process [after which] we drill the threads for the cabinet bolts. I think our largest pieces are 48 inches long, [but] I just had someone asked me if I can make seven-foot-long handles. We embrace the imperfections and for us that’s part of the charm, the evidence of the process.

The Skew Family (top) and Spul Family (bottom) of handles, both in bronze.

Do you design on a computer, or do you go pencil and paper?

All of the above. Sometimes I hand sculpt with modeling materials if I want a more organic shape, sometimes I just draw something up. Sometimes I use 3D rendering programs if it’s a very complex geometric shape and I need precision and then I’ll have things 3D printed to create the positives for the mold. Or I have a traditional-style mold maker help me create the tooling. Just whatever it is, it’s a very free flowing creative thing, and each series has its own little history and inspiration behind it.

What are your design influences as far as the actual styles?

Good question. They vary. I’m a very tactile person. I studied ceramics for years and I taught ceramics, so I love to mold with my hands. When I set to design my first line of wares I just I reached for a bag of clay, [even though] it didn’t end up being what I ended up using. Sometimes it’s architectural shapes, sometimes it’s forms from nature, or sometimes it’s just what I think is cool or what might look good in a kitchen. I lean towards more clean line structural shapes, but sometimes there are subtleties of the bronze itself that brings in more lyrical fluidity.

There’s a solidity and an importance to working with a material like bronze. I wonder if that creates a certain type of grounding that you’re not able to get in the film production design side, because bronze requires a lot of time and I remember you telling me that some of your TV show lead times are like six days before you start shooting. I’m sure you spend more than six days coming up with a piece for the hardware line.

It’s true, bronze lasts forever. I joke that the hardware will be around long after I am. But that’s part of the lure of the material for me, the antiquity and endurance of this beautiful substance that will morph in time and have its own life long after we’re gone.

Catch up on past episodes of What We Do in the Shadows on FX and Citytv+.